Nestled in the Catskills a few hours north of New York, Camp Jened looked like any ramshackle summer camp for teenagers — except for all those wheelchairs.
“At (Jened) everybody had something going on with their body — it just wasn’t a big deal,” recalls former camper Jim LeBrecht, in the stirring new documentary “Crip Camp,” which reveals the astonishing ways in which a camp for disabled teens sparked a revolution. “The wild thing,” says LeBrecht, who co-directed the film with Emmy Award-winner Nicole Newnham, “is that this camp changed the world. And nobody knows its story.”
Executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, and premiering on Netflix March 25, the film documents the fight for the rights of the disabled, a struggle beginning in the 1960s and spearheaded by many former Jened campers.
“Camps like Camp Jened help young people with disabilities recognize themselves not as individuals in need of ‘fixing’ but as members of communities, and potentially of social and political movements,” says Craig M. Rustici, director of the disability studies department at Hofstra, one of the few universities in the country to offer such a program.
Like Jened, Hofstra also helped fuel the disability rights movement, thanks to educators like Harold E. Yuker. Born with cerebral palsy, he was hired in 1948 as a psychology lecturer at Hofstra — then just a few scattered buildings and Quonset huts in Hempstead — and went on to become provost and dean of faculties. As the campus grew, he helped lead efforts to make its public facilities “barrier-free,” adding ramps and wider doorways.
Hofstra student (and Jened alum) Bobbi Linn helped organize People United in Support of the Handicapped (PUSH) in the late ‘60s, pressing to make Hofstra’s dorms wheelchair accessible. And Hofstra professor Frank Bowe helped direct a 1977 nationwide sit-in that called attention to discrimination faced by those with disabilities.
Local businesses also did their part. West Hempstead’s Abilities Inc., founded in 1952, was the first U.S. business staffed almost entirely by people with disabilities. The firm grew, moving to Albertson and adding a school for disabled students (the Henry Viscardi School, named for its founder).
Camps and schools like these helped nurture a generation, notes Julie Yindra, director of Hofstra’s Student Access Services, who was born with spina bifida and attended a Jened-like camp in Connecticut.
“For me, the camp was a place to find my voice, cultivate newfound confidence, and build the willingness to take risks,” says Yindra. “We discovered common goals and experiences. When I later became a disability advocate, it wasn’t just me I was standing up for. It was us.”